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Rum, seduction and death: 'aboriginality' and alcohol.

Of all the different constructs of 'the Aborigine', or ways of imagining the native in Australia, the most vocal is the 'drunken Aborigine'. In cities and provincial towns there are regular public debates about the 'drunken Aborigines'. Having consolidated apartheid practices so that the most dark skinned and traditional Aborigines are denied ready access to services except for the emergency welfare services and the public toilets, the city and shire councils, the local newspaper and talkback radio programs regularly raise the alarm about standards of civilised living falling because there are Aboriginal people living in the streets, or in the Todd River in Alice Springs or on the Esplanade in Cairns, or under the bridge in Mt Isa, or in the parks in Redfern. The Aboriginal organisations respond with the obvious solutions: they need land, houses, jobs, alcohol rehabilitation services, as well as fewer take-away alcohol outlets in the town.

The local motivations for starting these debates about the dangers stemming from 'drunken Aborigines', are knee-jerk economic and political responses which might be characterised as jigaboo voodoo: Shire Council members engage in the rhetoric to increase their chances of being reelected ('boongbashing is a good campaign standby ...). The local mainstreet merchants try to grab the attention of the State Government to get an increase in police numbers in the town to prevent their shop windows from being repeatedly smashed by vandals, who are, as the police attest, mainly youths and not those Aboriginal people who are in the firing line of the debate. The right wing or ultraconservatives try to gain enough public support to run all the homeless Aborigines out of town. Not content with the appeal for more police, one of their recent savage strategies was to ask for police dogs to be used on Aborigines. Mr. Kevin Byrne, Mayor of Cairns, proposed this in Cairns in January 1993, only two years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody tabled its Reports in the Commonwealth Parliament. In Alice Springs, in 1989, an alderman of the Alice Springs City Council proposed that dogs be used on Aborigines soon after the Royal Commission had set up an office in the town.

In the last five years, in the tourist-economy towns, such as Alice Springs and Cairns, the local councils have confined their racist media campaigns to the hot, wet season from November to February. One would guess that the motive for the timing of the anti-Aboriginal campaigns has something to do with the fact that the business communities involved in the tourism industry had been trying to put in place some measures for removing Aboriginal people from towns before the start of the tourist season from March to October. Rather like the early colonists recruiting Aboriginal labour, who imagined that there must have been thousands more Aborigines out in the bush ready to follow the few who came into the stations, the business communities in the towns know so very little about what has happened to Aboriginal people outside the towns, and what they do know is largely ugly colonial mythology. They imagine that they can 'send these Aborigines back to where they came from', ignoring the fact that they have been dispossessed of their land and that their colleagues in the local cattleman's association are trying to remove them from the rural regions, from the land, the reserves and the smaller towns.

I propose here that there are some familiar motivations for those who prefer to imagine 'the Aborigine' as a drunken buffoon. For those who observe the conduct of affairs by rural shire councils and business communities the purposes are clear cut. But how is it that one image, that of the 'drunken Aborigine', holds such a widespread ideological sway over such a long period of time? And why does it hold such sway when the real problems associated with misuse of alcohol in many Aboriginal communities are amenable to solution, when the rate of alcohol misuse in the Aboriginal community is actually less than in the general population, and when the focus of these campaigns is handfuls of bingedrinkers in the provincial towns whose plight deserves something better than vicious racist attacks?

The image of the 'drunken Aborigine' is a colonial construction which predated the ready availability of alcohol to Aboriginal people. From the first settlement and throughout the frontier period, alcohol was used to engage Aboriginal people in discourse, attract Aboriginal people into settlements, in barter for sexual favours from Aboriginal women, as payment for Aboriginal labour and to incite Aboriginal people to fight as street entertainment. Later, as the Aboriginal population was perceived to be a menace to further land dispossession the protectionist policies involved a total ban on sale of alcohol to Aboriginal people, as well as opium in some regions, such as Queensland and the Northern Territory. Despite its illegality, and despite the appointment of protectors (often the police) throughout Australia, frontier practices involving alcohol as the agent of seduction continued largely unchecked.

The assimilationist era from the later 1930s to the earlier 1970s involved another political use of alcohol. Exemption certificates entitled a few access to alcohol under certain strict conditions -- that they did not associate with their Aboriginal kinfolk, and dressed, worked and lived according to the expectations of European society. The exempted people were allowed to drink so long as they did not drink with family or friends. The effect of exemption from repressive laws was thus to criminalise those who continued their normal social relations.


Firstly, a major historical source of this key racist construct was the colonial necessity of transforming the dangerous native into the pathetic mendicant 'Abo'. This is a similar exercise to that described by Anderson in examining

... the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion -- the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry. (Anderson, 1991: 164; emphasis added)

Having crossed the seas without falling off the edge of the earth, the European imperialists imagined the new lands, peoples, flora and fauna as the primitive precursors of their own divinely ordered state of civilisation. The divine order required the conquest of the wild, the slaying of the dragon.

The European grammar of conquest includes as a powerful syntactic device -- extinction -- or at least depletion, of unicorns, dragons, and other species which endanger the order of the settled, garrisoned human community of the European magination. It was inevitable that the colonists would find naturism and animism somewhere in the imperial domain, because naturism and animism are a priori concepts in the Western cultural construction of Nature, like the fabled unicorns and dragons, memories of an Age before monotheism, the Holy Church, feudal agriculture and the dynastic realm.

The analysis and imaging of the primitive as natural was the final conquest. Try as they might, the full force of this mental and psychic conquest eludes the European intelligentsia because their pursuit of understanding of themselves as human privileged in this inquiry. Take for example Torgovnich's defining of the primitive:

To study the primitive is thus to enter an exotic world which is also a familiar world. That world is structured by sets of images and ideas that have slipped from their original metaphoric status to control perceptions of primitives -- images and ideas that I call tropes. Primitives are like children, the tropes say. Primitives are our untamed selves, our id forces -- libidinous, irrational, violent, dangerous. Primitives are mystics, in tune with nature part of its harmonies. Primitives are free. Primitives exist at the 'lowest cultural levels'; we occupy the 'highest', in the metaphors of stratification and hierarchy commonly used by Malinowski and others like him. The ensemble of these tropes -- however miscellaneous and contradictory -- forms the basic grammar and vocabulary of what I call primitivist discourse, a discourse fundamental to the Western sense of self and Other ... The real secret of the primitive in this century has often been the same secret as always: the primitive can be -- has been, will be(?) -- whatever Euro-Americans want it to be. It tells us what we want it to tell us. (1990:8-9; emphasis added)

The structuring of the Western self around the notion of the 'primitive' Other can also tell us a great deal about the Western cultural construction of 'Nature' as the model of beingness. Torgovnich's reading of Levi-Strauss after the critique by Derrida alerts to the possibility that somewhere along the way the Western intelligentsia, having given up on defining the primitive, has also given up on the concept of 'Nature':

There is no pure state of nature, Levi-Strauss says; all men have language, and language implies culture. There are more or less rudimentary cultures, but always cultures. For Levi-Strauss as for Derrida, the binary opposition of nature and culture is a dead letter; all cultures construct natures. He thus cannot find a 'natural' society, an authentic primitive. When he thinks he has found it, among the Nambikwara, he loses sight of the group for the individuals. When he thinks again that he has found it, among the Mundi, he is exhausted and cannot speak their language, so he cannot be sure he has found it at all. When he thinks again he has found it, among the Tupi-Kawahib, he needs to persuade the group (tribe is too large a word) to please stay with him for a week or two before joining civilization (they were on their way to a white settlement when he met them). The structure deliberately signals the failure of the actual quest, though validating the search via memory. The message is both clear and obscure. The primitive, like some grail, recedes before the observer. It may not exist and probably does not -- but it is essential to act as though it does. (Torgovnich, 1990:221-222).

Rousseau also stated that the primitive has probably never existed, but he wrote, 'it is nevertheless essential to form a correct notion (of it) in order rightly to judge our present state'. (as cited in Torgovnich, 1990: 222). The concerns of Rousseau and Levi-Strauss were to discover the principles of forms of social organisation to allow the construction of a new form. Yet, as Levi-Strauss understood.

Every effort to understand destroys the object studied in favour of another object of a different nature; this second object requires from us a new effort which destroys it in favor of a third, and so on and so forth until we reach the one lasting presence, the point at which the distinction between meaning and the absence of meaning disappears; the same point from which we began ... the completed stages do not destroy the validity of those that went before; they confirm it. (as cited in Torgovnich, 1990:222)

Not only does this give us some clues as to why some good Australian suburbanites have plaster casts of Aborigines in their gardens along with the gnomes and swans made from car tyres, but as well it gives some insight into the construction of the 'drunken abo' icon.


There was, and remains, the further necessity for the colonial mentality to create an ideology which allows its participants to presume innocence in the colonial process. 'The drunken Aborigine' functions as a convenient shorthand for the eugenecist theory applied to Aboriginal administration. Tindale wrote of a series of steps in a 'breeding' process, sufficiently simple for anyone who has bred cattle to understand. (cited in Markus 1982) The eugenicists' theory allowed anthropologists to imagine an Australia in which no 'full-bloods' survived because they observed the 'miscegenation' on the last frontiers and projected its effects into the future. It is not a large step, although an entirely illogical one, from the assumptions about miscegenation, such as that made by Tindale, to the proposition that the race is being bred out.

The iconoclastic image of Aboriginal men and women as 'drunks' serves a convenient purpose in the ideology of white Australia. Today it remains the background and popular explanation for the extraordinary arrest rates of Aboriginal people, for the continuing removal of Aboriginal children and the continuing exclusion of Aboriginal people from employment, education, health services, rental accommodation, and a range of other services.

The virility of the myth of the 'drunken Aborigine' is in its appeal to racist and eugenicist theory, elements of which still remain in popular discourse. The once respectable theory that: 'Aborigines "have a genetic trait" which makes them susceptible to alcohol abuse,' remains in popular belief. The fact that there are other genetically based theories, for instance, that the medical profession suggests for all men that they consume only two glasses of alcohol a day and for all women that they consume no alcohol at all, does not address the racist premise of this assertion. Another popular view, that 'You can't give grog to thefull-bloods' echoes the same racist message. Well, according to the medical advice cited above, 'you can't give grog to any woman either' regardless of colour. And, indeed, it would be fair to suppose that 'you shouldn't give alcohol to the white male youth of Blacktown either.'

The notion of the 'drunken Aborigine' is a myth of origin. The virile white man needs a can or two after a long hard day. The black man however cannot hold his drink. It was this 'discovery' -- the presumed fact of white superiority in relation to consumption of alcohol -- which was and is the archetypal 'proof' of superiority in popular white Australian culture. The proposition, being racist, is not amenable to information which contradicts it. A likely response from the racist proponent would be 'What are ya? A bloody boong lover.' Logical and obvious refutations of the popular theory or presumption are simply not currency in this racist economy of falsehoods and ideology.

This is because we are dealing with the language of metaphor. The term usually used is 'stereotype'. When we understand that these stereotypes are metaphors or signs whose deeper social political and economic meanings are disguised by the revulsion and other negative associations which they intend to convey about Aboriginal people, we begin to understand the grammar of these signs or metaphors.

In the recent collection, Cultural Studies edited by Grossberg and others, Afro-American feminist theorist, bell hooks, writes:

Stereotypes, however inaccurate, are one form of representation. Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are there not to tell it like it is but to invite and encourage pretense. They are a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening. Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make real knowing possible cannot be taken -- are not allowed (1992:341).

This is not to deny that alcohol, particularly the colonial economy of alcohol, constitutes a grave social threat to Aboriginal people and to their societies. However, the colonial constructs around the notion of the 'drunken Aborigine', far from alerting one to these very real problems, glosses over the economic facts of the distribution of alcohol. The icon also deprives the set of problems involved in the misuse of alcohol by Aboriginal people of the contradictions, ambiguities and subtleties to do with the social use of alcohol in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies. The 'drunken Abo' does not require that the economic and political factors which lead to and perpetuate the misuse of alcohol be understood or that any theoretical approach which might include such questions as: 'Who benefits from the distribution of alcohol to Aboriginal people? Who profits?' be developed. Such questions are quite simply unnecessary in the discourse of racial superiority.

With the power of mythology this icon has also deceived Aboriginal people, and the politics of alcohol are now being fought out on this battlefield of phantoms. Some Aboriginal people will not tolerate any discourse or representation of the impact of alcohol on Aboriginal people. Any discussion or portrayal perpetuates the stereotype of the 'drunken blackfella', they argue. Other Aboriginal people counter that this fear of the white stereotype hinders us in finding solutions to the extreme availability of alcohol and to its power to destroy, based as it is in the way it has been incorporated into Aboriginal society, into the exchange system, and even into notions of Aboriginal identity. If one refuses a drink, people ask 'What kind of blackfella are you?'

Maybe we should be asking instead 'What kind of Blackfellas have we been made into?' The story of Bennelong was the first reconstruction of an Aboriginal person as a 'drunken abo', and from there the stereotype was developed. Very little about the metaphor itself has changed, and the reasons and causes which can be identified in colonial history also show little variation.

'The young anthropologist now wanted to understand what was then being called the 'functional system' of social life, how institutions help maintain each other, and contribute to the whole process of human society. We were beginning to speak about 'social structure', the system of enduring relations between persons and groups. Where a society was breaking down (as with most of the aborigines) we thought it our task to salvage pieces of information and from them try to work out the traditional social forms. Such were my interests. They help to explain why an interest in 'living actuality' scarcely extended to the actual life-conditions of the aborigines and why in referring to those conditions I did so in anything but a fire-brand's words. But it will hardly do as a sufficient explanation. What was missing was the idea that a major development of aboriginal economic, social and political life from its broken down state was a thinkable possibility. How slowly this idea came to us.' (Stanner, W. E. H., 1968:14)

The anthropological gaze on Aboriginal identity, whether as a study of ethnic identity, or as a political phenomenon, has been informed by a number of theories, and at two extremes are theories which could be said to be concerned with 'function' and 'dysfunction'. It would be more useful, I suggest, to reconsider these theoretical positions, not by looking yet again at Aboriginal people and the ethnographic evidence to support this or that view of identity, but to look at the observers' attitudes towards Aborigines and their designs and purposes.

The 'drunken Aborigine' as an icon of European contempt for Aboriginal people is an excellent starting point for examining the identity attributed to Aborigines and the intersubjectivity of the European and Aboriginal identity constructions. Amongst the officers of the British penal colony at Port Jackson in 1788 were men who keenly observed Aboriginal society. They did so for practical purposes -- politico-military, economic and social. One way they chose to observe Aboriginal people was to kidnap them. This kidnapping policy was an attempt to pacify Aboriginal people by informing a few captives of British language and customs by having them forcibly live amongst them in the colony and at the same time to ascertain from them the food and economic resources of the region. The economic reasons became paramount when in April 1790, it was learned that the ship, Sirius, which was returning with supplies for the destitute colony had been wrecked on Norfolk Island. Another ship, the Supply, was despatched but the food shortage had become a famine and as well a serious security problem should the Aboriginal people learn of the state of affairs. They tried to keep the famine a secret from an Aboriginal captive, Baneelon (more famous by the name of 'Bennelong'):

Our friend Baneelon, during this season of scarcity, was as well taken care of as our desperate circumstances would allow. We knew not how to keep him, and yet were unwilling to part with him. Had he penetrated our state, perhaps he might have given his countrymen such a description of our diminished numbers, and diminished strength, as would have emboldened them to become more troublesome. Every expedient was used to keep him in ignorance; his allowance was regularly received by the governor's servant, like that of any other person; but the ration of a week was insufficient to have kept him for a day; the deficiency was supplied by fish, whenever it could be procured, and a little Indian corn, which had been reserved, was ground and appropriated to his use. In spite of all these aids, want of food has been known to make him furious and often melancholy. (Tench, |1793~ 1974:167)

These officers were the first British ethnologists, whatever their purposes, and whatever their prejudices. They were also the first of the British to attempt to assimilate Aboriginal people, albeit by means of kidnap, a tactic not so different from the removal of children which followed in the late nineteenth century and continued till the 1970s. They were also the first of the British to create an 'urban' Aboriginal population. Baneelon was the first archetypal 'urban Aborigine'.

It would be not too far-fetched to suggest that alcohol was from the very beginning of British settlement a crucially important strategy in dealing with Aboriginal people. It must be assumed of the British that in their predicament of having Bennelong living in their midst that alcohol was deliberately chosen as an effective way of keeping the truth of their famine from him, of keeping him too drunk to notice. But more importantly, alcohol was, consciously or unconsciously, used by the British as a device for seducing the Aboriginal people to engage economically, politically and socially with the colony.

The British versions of alcoholic beverage were first introduced to an Aboriginal person in January, 1789. 'Arabanoo' who had been kidnapped on Governor Phillip's orders would not drink it:

He dined at a side-table at the governor's; and eat heartily of fish and ducks, which he first cooled. Bread and salt meat he smelled at, but would not taste: all our liquors he treated in the same manner, and could drink nothing but water. (Tench, |1793~ 1974:140)

He subsequently died of smallpox on the 18th of May and was buried in Governor Phillip's garden. An old man and a young boy, also kidnapped, had died before him.

In December 1789, assisted by Nanbaree and Abaroo, two child captives who had survived the smallpox, Lieutenant Bradley of the Sirius commanded the kidnapping another two men. One of these latest captives, 'Baneelon' or 'Bennelong', accepted the offer of alcoholic beverages and enjoyed them. His friend, 'Colbee' escaped a week later. Tench wrote of 'Bennelong':

But Baneelon, though haughty, knew how to temporize. He quickly threw off all reserve; and pretended, nay, at particular moments, perhaps felt satisfaction in his new state. Unlike poor Arabanoo, he became at once fond of our viands, and would drink the strongest liquors, not simply without reluctance, but with eager marks of delight and enjoyment. He was the only native we ever knew who immediately shewed a fondness for spirits: Colbee would not at first touch them. Nor was the effect of wine or brandy upon him more perceptible than an equal quantity would have produced upon one of us, although fermented liquor was new to him. (Tench, |1793~ 1974:159-60)

On the 3rd of May, 1790, Bennelong, too, escaped and went back to his own people, apparently none the wiser as to the conditions of famine in the colony.

In an encounter later, when Phillip approached a large group dining on a beached whale at what is now known as Manly, he enticed Bennelong to resume the old friendship by offering wine.

Baneelon's love of wine has been mentioned; and the governor, to try whether it still subsisted |his relationship with Bennelong~, uncorked a bottle, and poured out a glass of it, which the other drank off with his former marks of relish and good humour, giving for a toast, as he had been taught, 'the King'. (Tench, |1793~ 1974:172)

It was during this encounter that a man standing with Baneelon's group, whose name is reported as Wil-ee-ma-rin, of a tribe residing at Broken Bay, threw a spear at Phillip impaling him by the right shoulder. After some negotiations, it appears that Baneelon's group was anxious to disassociate themselves from the attack and sought to placate Phillip and his officers.

Officers returning stolen goods to Baneelon's group, in the hope that they might retrieve the Governor's dagger, reported

Baneelon inquired, with solicitude, about the state of the governor's wound; but he made no offer of restoring the dirk; and when he was asked for it, he pretended to know nothing of it, changing the conversation with great art, and asking for wine, which was given to him.

At parting, we pressed him to appoint a day on which he should come to Sydney, assuring him, that he would be well received, and kindly treated. Doubtful, however, of being permitted to return, he evaded our request, and declared, that the governor must first come and see him, which we promised should be done. (Tench |1793~ 1974:186-7)

Tench recounts that on the 8th of October Bennelong and a group of Aborigines visited the settlement, as arranged. This was the first voluntary visit and 'blankets and cloathing (sic) were given them, and each had a bellyfull of fish' but it was Bennelong who 'sat down to dinner with Governor Phillip, and drank his wine and coffee as usual' (Willey 1979: 117)

Phillip's strategy of kidnapping as a means of alleviating the cost of violent conflict with the Aborigines paid off for a while. Tench wrote: 'From this time our intercourse with the natives, though partially interrupted was never broken off. Hunter said:

The next visit from these men brought the same favour from their wives and families, whose example was followed by many others; so that every gentleman's house was now become a resting or sleeping place for some of them every night; whenever they were pressed for hunger, they had immediate recourse to our quarters, where they generally got their bellies filled... (Willey 1979:118)

And then after the Supply arrived and conditions improved in the colony, the colonists built him a house at a location of his own choosing, the site of the Opera House today, Bennelong's Point. In November, 1790, Tench wrote:

Baneelon, from being accustomed to our manners, and understanding a little English, was the person through whom we wished to prosecute inquiry: but he had lately become a man of so much dignity and consequence, that it was not always easy to obtain his company. Clothes had been given to him at various times; but he did not always condescend to wear them: one day he would appear in them; and the next day he was to be seen carrying them in a net, slung around his neck. Farther to please him, a brick house, of 12 feet square, was built for his use, and for that of such of his country-men as might chuse to reside in it, on a point of land fixed upon by himself. A shield, double cased with tin, to ward off the spears of his enemies, was also presented to him, by the governor.

... Elated by these marks of favour, and sensible that his importance with his countrymen arose, in proportion to our patronage of him, he warmly attached himself to our society. (Tench |1793~ 1974:200)

It was from these initial encounters, especially those in respect of the role of alcohol, that the historical view of Aborigines as indigent drunks developed. Alcohol usually had a devastating effect on those who drank it, and rendered them susceptible to racist caricature. But the significant factor ignored in studies of the representation of Aborigines is the role of the British men who deliberately provided the alcohol to trick and debilitate those Aborigines who had survived the smallpox and the destitution into which they were forced.

Baneelon, for his part, on occasions sought from the colonists their alliance with him against his traditional enemies, the 'Cameraigals', asking them to kill some of them. Willey concluded:

One of the major aims of Bennelong's own policy toward the whites was to engage them as allies in destroying the power of his enemies, the much-feared Camaraigals. A month after his approach to the sergeant he told Phillip the Camaraigals had murdered a kinsman and he urged the Governor to have the soldiers kill them (Willey 1979:121).

But Baneelon's alliances shifted frequently. Perhaps this can be seen in retrospect as desperate calculations to save their world in what became month by month an increasingly hopeless situation.

The killing by Pemelwi (Pemelwuy) of M'Entire, the Governor's gamekeeper, in December 1970, changed the relationship of the colonists with the Aborigines forever. Phillip demanded vengeance, at least ten Aboriginal dead at first, then six, after Tench's suggestions. Ruthless violence took the place of enticements with gifts of alcohol, food and axes.

Willey remarks on the subsequent view of Aborigines:

Soon they were being regarded pictorially almost everywhere as objects of cruel fun, clad in European rags boozing and fighting, divested of the last traces of that nobility with which the eighteenth century had once clothed them. (Willey 1979:132)

Bennelong went to Norfolk Island and London and returned just under three years later. He returned a changed man with the manners of an Englishman and was no longer accepted by his own people -- his wife had left him for a younger man and Bennelong could find no other wife. He became increasingly intoxicated and violent, and the colonists declared his anger at his predicament and his attacks on them, ingratitude. He returned to his own people and ways and died unmarried. His obituary in 1813 in the Sydney Gazette evokes the theme of an unredeemable savagery and primitivism.

The principal officers of the Government had for many years endeavoured, by the kindest of usage, to wean him from his original habits and draw him into a relish for civilized life; but every effort was in vain exerted and for the last few years he has been but little noticed. His propensity to drunkenness was inordinate; and when in that state he was insolent, menacing and overbearing. In fact, he was a thorough savage, not to be warped from the form and character that nature gave him by all the efforts that mankind could use. (Willey 1979:145)

Bennelong was buried near a brewery at Kissing Point owned by James Squire, of whom it is reported that he was 'interested in the Aborigines and a number of natives were buried on his property' (Jervis as cited in Willey 1979:146).

Willey describes the behaviour to which Aborigines resorted to obtain alcohol: 'They would also hire themselves to the tavern proprietors to cleanout the brandy and rum casks. The first wash contained a flavour of spirits and this liquid, called 'bull', was given to the Aborigines as payment' (1979:212). Willey cites L. E. Threlkeld, the missionary, who pointed out that their addiction to liquor was in no way out of character with the general mores of the settlement:

Rum, as the strongest inducement that could be offered to the aborigines |to make them work (Willey)~ used to be the temptation held out as the most likely to prevail. It must however be remembered that ... this was a Rum-colony ... Rum built our hospitals, Rum built our palaces, Rum erected churches, and Rum was the circulating medium, which even paid preachers to teach men 'to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present evil world'.

It was indeed a Rum-national-education to reform criminals by Rum and stripes. The Aborigines became adept scholars ... Drunkenness seemed to be considered by (them) as a sort of accomplishment, as the following instance will illustrate: Some brine was being boiled one day out of doors, in a large iron pot, and as usual a number of natives were around, amongst whom was one from the mountains, a black that we had never before seen. Looking very earnestly into the pot, he said ... -- 'Massa, that Rum(?)' -- 'Taste and see,' was the reply and taking up a tin pannikin full of boiling hot brine, the aborigine ... tasted it, kept drinking it until he had drunk the whole!

The blacks laughed at his simplicity, and enjoyed the ignorance of their friend from the mountains. Presently he began to say, smacking his lips: -- 'Rum merry good, me mer(r)y drunk,' and cut all manner of capers, on being asked how he liked it, 'Oh! merry good merry good, make me merry drunk, me drunk like a gemmem,' (gentleman), and danced about to the great amusement of his countrymen. It was a fact that he did not know what rum was, but had only heard of its wonderful effects upon those who drank it (ibid).

This might be the first reported evidence of what experts now diagnose as 'drunken deportment'.

The dispossession had left the Aborigines of the five groups of the Sydney region 'begging their bread, and begging for clothing and rum', as Reverend William Yate explained in his evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1835. Mahroot, the Boatswain, told the Committee, that he had never had any children. Few children had been born to the women of Botany Bay since they had begun to drink alcohol and trade their sexual favours with white men for it. Drinking alcohol 'was the only thing that destroyed them' he said.


The significance of this tale of rum, seduction and death in geopolitical terms is the pattern of colonisation and the situating of Aboriginal men and women as mendicants and whores during the frontier days. Aboriginal people were 'tamed' by being attracted into ration depots with the lure of tea, tobacco, jam and flour, the depots and towns serving as administrative centres, labour centres and military bases. The narrative constructed by the white man out of these events presents the Aborigine as living a fantasy of wanting to become like the white man, but unable to do so. He is totally removed from the real world, ignorant of the way it works. The image of drunkenness is one of the ways that white society projects inauthenticity onto the 'half-civilised' native. While white society needs its success stories about a few Aborigines, it also needs its stories of tragic failure. The drunken Aborigine provides this narrative presenting a modern image of uncontained and undisciplined violence which cannot be made to accept and adopt the genteel constraints of civilisation.

I contend that it is the invention of the 'drunken Aborigine' and other metaphors or social icons to do with how whites need to imagine Aborigines, that enables the sociological or anthropological notions about degeneration, or more recently deprivation and social pathology to remain intact. Such notions are impressionistic and insubstantial, like the notion of 'the masses' which Baudrillard (1992) dissected and revealed as a convenient political and sociological convention. An iconic image can be created in words or pictures, or imagined onto a person or group. 'God' or 'the masses' are icons onto which all kinds of social dissatisfactions and fears are projected.

Individuals might be drunk or depressed. Many individuals in a group might show these characteristics. But can a culture be described in this way? This is precisely how the metaphor which I have discussed here is constituted: an iconic image, as powerful as that of the Virgin Mary for Catholics, can hold sway for as long as it is able to say what the people want it to say. Why have only a few anthropologists grappled with alcohol use and misuse and social ramifications? (eg. Brady, 1988; Edmunds, 1990; Stolz, 1990; Sackett, 1988). Perhaps it is because some anthropologists and other social scientists might not want to consider the role of the Western imagination, and their own imaginings, in some of their notions about contemporary Aboriginal society as dysfunctional.


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BELL HOOKS, 1992. Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination. In Cultural Studies. (eds) L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, P. Treichler. pp. 338-46.

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BRADY, M. 1988. Where the Beer Truck Stops; Drinking in a Northern Territory Town. North Australian Research Unit, Casuarina, N.T.

EDMUNDS, M. 1990. Doing Business. unpublished ms. AIATSIS.

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Author:Langton, Marcia
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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